December 21, 2010

Student pens comics to encourage better communication about sex

Maisha Foster-O’Neal ’11 is taking a creative approach to sexual assault prevention. Combining a healthy dose of humor, a love of art, and a dedication to issues of gender and sexuality, Foster-O’Neal created a three-page comic strip, titled “Sex Talk,” to encourage open and honest discussion about sex and consent.

Maisha Foster-O’Neal ’11 is taking a creative approach to sexual assault prevention. Combining a healthy dose of humor, a love of art, and a dedication to issues of gender and sexuality, Foster-O’Neal created a three-page comic strip, titled “Sex Talk,” to encourage open and honest discussion about sex and consent.

The comics, which explore topics like how to set boundaries and share risk factors, grew out of an assignment in a gender studies course and have since become a community education project.

“Maisha’s comics are a creative approach to getting students, and other young adults to think and hopefully begin talking about consent,” said Melissa Osmond, associate director for health promotion and co-chair of the campus committee of the Oregon Attorney General’s sexual assault task force. “Prevention of sexual violence is everyone’s responsibility. The comics provide an accessible resource for young adults to better understand what effective consent means, which is critical for healthy, positive sexual experiences.”

Click to view the comic larger.
Foster-O’Neal considers the project a step toward building a culture of enthusiastic consent, and she has succeeded in spreading her message far beyond the Lewis & Clark campus. The comics have been redistributed at colleges and universities across the country and are currently being translated into German.

In the following interview, Foster-O’Neal discusses the genesis of her project and how it relates to her self-designed gender studies major.

Sex is obviously a really difficult subject for many people to talk about openly. How did you decide to focus on consent, rather than another sex- or gender-related subject for your project?

Sex is hard to talk about, and that’s one of the reasons we as a society tend to address sexual assault from an after-the-fact, damage-control perspective. Sex Talk’s tagline is “communication, consent, and gettin’ it on” because clear, honest communication about sex is where we need to start in order to prevent sexual assault. My comics are designed to be proactive rather than reactive and to operate from a sex-positive platform that encourages contemplation and conversation. I chose full-page comics as a medium precisely because sex and consent are so hard to talk about, and humor has the power to make uncomfortable subjects fun, accessible, and memorable.

How did Professor Goldsmith respond to your interest in creating an alternative to the final project, and what was the experience of designing a new project like?

When I initially approached my Gender in Relational Communication professor, Daena Goldsmith, with a partially formed idea about teaching consent through the medium of guerrilla art, I half expected to be shot down because it was so off-the-wall and definitely not a research paper or a qualitative study. Rather than corralling me into the familiar corner of a 15-page paper, Daena helped me solidify my amorphous idea. I still had to wade through a swamp of journal articles before I could start the comics, but I also read zines, blogs, and webcomics, which gave me access to a whole realm of cutting-edge thought about consent, communication, art, and activism that I probably would not have otherwise been able to list as legitimate sources. The process of distilling what I learned about sexual assault prevention into a series of concrete lessons that could be depicted in humorous ways through the medium of comics presented a set of challenges in which students rarely have the opportunity to engage. Comics as a final project might seem like a cop-out, but I learned much more during that project—and enjoyed doing it—than I have learned from any research paper. I am so grateful that Daena encouraged my wild little idea, because creating those comics has been my best learning experience to date.

How did you get the word out about your comic?

Sex Talk started as a guerrilla art “installation” in every residence hall and academic building on the undergraduate campus. Every two days for the week, I posted the next page in the Sex Talk series. At the end of the week, I co-facilitated a hugely successful workshop that covered everything from how to make consent sexy to a lube-testing session. Campus Living, the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness, the Womyn’s Center, and United Sexualities (Unisex) all pitched in to help with the planning, facilitation, publicity, and funding for the workshop. After that, I sent my comic off into the world via the power of the Internet and handed out free copies at Portland’s annual Stumptown Comic Fest. Eventually, someone at the well-known feminist blog Feministing noticed my comic, and before I knew it, people from all over the world were emailing me about Sex Talk. It is currently being translated into German, being considered for printing in a state-funded magazine that goes out to Oregon public schools, and being passed around Twitter and Tumblr.

Why do you think it’s important that we build a culture of enthusiastic consent?

I believe that if we have any hope of ending sexual assault, we need to start talking about sex, and we need to start talking about it in a way that recognizes it as healthy, legitimate, and valuable. Building a culture of enthusiastic consent means transforming our societal conceptions of sex from a scary thing we don’t talk about into something that we do talk about, and that we talk about enthusiastically! A culture of enthusiastic consent would mean that people would approach sex with the intention of mutual pleasure, and would seek genuine, enthusiastic consent from people before crossing potential boundaries. A culture of enthusiastic consent would be a culture of respect for others’ differences, in sexual and non-sexual contexts.

How did you decide to pursue a major in gender studies, and what have you gained from your line of study?

When I first started college, I was determined to major in English and minor in art. That didn’t last long. During my first semester at Lewis & Clark, I discovered the gender studies minor, and I was so taken with it that I chased down my academic advisor and asked how I could go about making it my major. With the assistance and support of three excellent advisors, I successfully navigated the self-design process and created a personalized major that is actually more rigorous credit-wise than most majors in similar fields. Self-designing a gender studies major also enabled me to avoid a senior thesis project in favor of doing what I really wanted to do: an internship with SMYRC, Portland’s Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, with which I teach educators techniques to empower marginalized youth.

Moreover, gender studies has taught me to think in terms of intersectionality: that the lines we create to separate concepts are pretty blurry, and things are more connected than we sometimes believe—like art, writing, and gender, for example. In gender studies courses, the lessons I have learned about difference, privilege, disadvantage, and empowerment inform my art, writing, and activism.


“Sex Talk,” by Maisha Foster-O’Neal ’11. Click to view larger.

Sex Talk comic by Maisha Foster-O'Neal

Sex Talk comic by Maisha Foster-O'Neal

Sex Talk comic by Maisha Foster-O'Neal